I think it is a fair statement to say that the 74 million cats in America think that they really own the home they share with humans! It turns out that cats and humans have had a long relationship that dates back more than 8,000 years. A recent study explored the genetic history of domestic cats and their relationship with humans.

What led to the cat being domesticated? The path to domestication for cats was much different from dogs. Dogs were domesticated and bred by early humans to provide specific services. When humans were predominantly hunters, dogs were bred to assist in this essential activity. Archaeological evidence shows that dogs were domesticated long before cats. Cats essentially backed their way into human life and domestication. Some would say that cats domesticated themselves. That would be just like a cat!

Recent studies analyzed genetic data from more than 200 cat remains dating back to 9,000 years ago. From these studies, it is thought that cats were interacting with humans in the Tigris valley in modern day Iraq more than 8,000 years ago. A separate domestication of cats occurred in Egypt around 4,400 B.C.

Why did this happen at these times and in these locations? These civilizations began farming, which started a mutual beneficial relationship between cats and humans. Farming meant that humans could grow food instead of constantly searching for it, and food stores could be kept for longer periods. Food storage systems like granaries attracted rodents, and the proliferation of these animals attracted predators like cats. The cats controlled the rodent population and they were welcomed by the humans for providing this service. So, was this relationship between cats and humans a domestication or was this just a mutually beneficial relationship?

A recent study comparing the genetics of these ancient cats with their wild relatives suggest that this was a relationship of mutual benefit and not domestication. There were very few genetic changes between these human-associated cats and wild cat populations. Domestication would likely have resulted in significant genetic changes, suggesting human-directed breeding.

Our relationship with cats has changed through the ages. In ancient Egypt and among the Romans, cats were revered. They are depicted in paintings, pottery and murals. In contrast, in the middle ages, cats were associated with witchcraft and held in much lower esteem.

In the middle ages, cats with tabby markings appeared in the Ottoman Empire and southwest Asia and they spread to Europe and Africa along land and sea trade routes. Cats were useful on ships for protecting food supplies, and evidence exists that they were a part of seafaring cultures and those involved in land trade routes. At some time at the end of the middle ages, genetic evidence shows that breeding for desired traits began and the fancy breeds appeared.

Most cats are fiercely independent and while they enjoy human companionship, they are not the solitary creatures that their wild cousins remain. Everyone knows it is the fuzzy tails that really control our homes.

Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.

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